Toyota’s TS040 Hybrid Le Mans racer isn’t your neighbor’s Prius

This year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in recent years. Defending champion Audi and its R18 e-tron quattro will face green and mean hybrid racers from Porsche and Toyota.

While Porsche has been on a hiatus from top endurance racing, Toyota has been trying unsuccessfully to topple Audi with its TS030 Hybrid for the past couple of years. For 2014, the Japanese automaker will field a car that’s improved in almost every way, including its name.

The Toyota TS040 Hybrid may look similar to last year’s model, but Toyota has made many modifications to make the car more competitive, and to comply with new racing rules.

The TS040’s powertrain consists of a 513-horsepower, 3.7-liter gasoline V8 and a pair of electric motor-generators, one for each axle. And unlike the rear-wheel drive TS030, the new car will send power to all four wheels. The motors recover energy during braking, just like in your hippie neighbor’s Prius. That energy is stored in a super capacitor, and can be released to give the driver a temporary boost of 473 hp, for a total of 986 ponies.

With this setup, Toyota expects a 25-percent gain in fuel economy compared to last year, and that’s more than a perk. Toyota says the improvement is required by the revised 2014 World Endurance Championship (WEC) regulations.

Other changes include extra safety equipment, and a body that is a bit narrower, and more aerodynamic, than before. Engineers had to balance smooth airflow for fuel economy, with downforce to get maximum grip out of the tires, which are narrower than last year’s.

Toyota will field two cars for the 2014 WEC season. The number 7 TS040 will be driven by Alex Wurz, Stéphane Sarrazin, and Kazuki Nakajima, while the number 8 will be driven by Anthony Davidson, Nicholas Lapierre, and Sébastien Buemi.

The TS040 will test this week at Circuit Paul Ricard in France, before heading to the 6 Hours of Silverstone next month, where it will face its German rivals for the first time.